One morning several weeks ago you may have answered a knock on your door to find a flustered individual, armed with reams of paper, who sported a small red, white, and blue plastic badge. Before you opened your mouth the person on your doorstep began to speak faster than an auctioneer at the Fryeburg Fair.
After a minute of garbled conversation you understood that you were face to face with a Census enumerator, one of a dozen people canvassing northern Carroll County for the Bureau of The Census. From mid-April through early June, enumerators -- those hired to "count" the census -- were hard at work across the country completing the 20th Decennial Census, the results of which determine not only Congressional representation but strongly influence allocations in Federal budgets for the next 10 years.
Although questions asked by the Census vary from decade to decade, the Census itself is as old as the Republic, as provisions mandating a nationwide counting of citizens appear in the Constitution. Still, the original Census of 1790 bears little resemblance to the computerized forms we fill out today. The first Census tabulated just a person's name and gender; this year's questionnaires demanded much more information.
Depending on the whim of a computer, each household received either a Short or a Long Form. the Short Form asked a total of 19 questions, while the Long Form -- assigned randomly to one in six addresses nationwide -- had 65 separate inquiries. However, in rural communities of fewer than 2,500 inhabitants, roughly half the households had to fill out the Long Form. Those given the detailed Long Form might have suspected that the computer bore a special grudge against them, yet in contrast to past Censuses the 1980 Forms seemed brief. True, the Long Form took almost an hour to finish, but compare it with the 1890 Census. In that year the form included 487 questions, a number which even the Bureau of the Census admitted was "obviously a burden to many respondents."
Preparations for the 1980 Census began last fall when canvassers conducted a house-by-house survey to identify all homes in the state. Based on this information most New Hampshire residents received a Census Form in late March which they filled out and returned to the Portsmouth office on "Census Day," April 1st. However, because the canvassing missed some homes, and because some people who received forms never sent them in, Census workers swung into action, visiting every "non-response" household in the area.
In Carroll County, those who worked for the Census had to pass an hour-long exam before they were hired. The 12 selected from those tested met at the Conway Recreation Center on April 13th and 14th for training under the direction of George Tice, the area Crew Leader. These sessions prepared the Enumerators for their jobs by teaching them how the Census worked, how to properly complete the Forms and how to cope with problems they might encounter in the field.
"Training stressed ways to deal with difficulties we'd have going door-to-door," Census worker Chris Zepata said. "One film we saw explained various unfriendly people we might run into. There were those who thought Census workers were salesmen, those who thought Census workers were robbers or crooks, those who opposed government harassment, and those who simply didn't understand how to fill out the forms. In each case the film suggested ways to solve the problem so that you could get the interview. By the time we finished discussing these problems, I expected to meet only angry people and barking dogs. As it turned out I worried over nothing. Almost everyone I talked with helped me out."
Census enumerators in Carroll County agreed that people were generally cooperative and friendly, but not every home welcomed them with open arms. One Census taker felt that the Forms themselves created most of the friction she experienced, believing that some of the questions were not as relevant to rural New Hampshire communities as they were to an urban area like Washington, D.C. "The Long Form's questions about personal income, work history, property values, and number of toilets causes some grumbling," she reported, "but after I explained the confidentiality of each person's response, the grumblings ended." All collected data on income, housing, transportation and family history is only used statistically to show where Federal funds for construction, job training, education, public works, and other programs are needed. For the next 72 years, no one except a sworn Census worker has access to individual Census records. In this way the privacy of every person's answers remains protected.
Local Census workers met challenges unlike those faced by urban area Enumerators; since 90% of Americans live in cities, the forms were tailored for population-dense regions. So as Wink Lees, who covered the Chatham district, noted, "Success depended on who was home, what type of questionnaire you had to fill out, and where the home was located. On bad days, when you had to drive to the end of a dirt road and hike a mile or more into the woods looking for a home that might not exist, you didn't do so well."
In a round-about way, life for the New Hampshire Census worker was further complicated by the unexpected cooperation of the state's residents. Because a far greater number of people than anticipated mailed in their Census Forms to the Portsmouth Office, a giant backlog in processing developed. Instead of the 70 percent projected return, 85 percent of those who received a form sent it back. The Portsmouth office labored under masses of returns, causing a delay in recording accurate "non-response" lists for Census workers to visit. "Often we would locate people at their homes only to discover that they had already completed a questionnaire and mailed it in," Lees reported. "Since we were paid piece-rate for every form finished, this was quite frustrating." Fortunately, by the end of April the office in Portsmouth had fought its way through most of the mail returns resulting in far fewer wild goose chases for the Enumerators.
Tracking down non-response addresses proved more complex than conducting an interview for many workers. "Each of us covered an Enumeration district and I was given Jackson," Chris Zapata said."We worked with Master Address Registers, which listed every home in our district; we also had maps showing a numbered dot for every home on our list. Usually the register and the maps had reliable information, but if the wrong name had been entered under an address or if one of the dots on the map was out of place, life became very confusing. I fumbled around the back roads of Jackson for hours looking for people who didn't exist and people who did exist but were mismarked in my records."
Because of the large number of vacation homes in Carroll County the Enumerators had to do some quick talking. "Most part-time residents didn't understand that we still had to count their home in New Hampshire even if they had already filled out a form at their permanent address," Lees reported. "If you didn't rapidly explain the necessity for completing a Census Form for every home -- even if it was only a summer or winter house -- people became a bit cranky. Some were upset that they had to fill out the same form twice. Luckily, in cases where a person had already completed a form at their usual home we needed to know the answers to only a dozen or so questions about the house itself, and that took only five or 10 minutes to do."
Even the few questions which needed to be answered for vacation homes created unexpected headaches for the Enumerators. "It was an easy task IF you found a person home," Zapapa added, "but that was a matter of chance. How often do people visit their vacation homes in the spring? You might drive to the same address three or four times before you ran into the occupants." In situations where people could not be found, the Census workers turned to neighbors, postmen, policemen, town clerks, or anyone else who had knowledge about unoccupied homes, a technique referred to as "last resort" information gathering. "Without Ellie Lang at the Jackson Town Hall, I couldn't have done the job," Zapata said.
The Bureau of The Census expected each Enumerator to complete from 14 to 18 forms in a typical day, yet few local Census workers reported having "typical" days. "Once I finished only three forms, and another time I did 30," Zapata said. "It all depended on luck." Hilda Matero, who canvassed the North Conway area, found herself being thorough at the expense of her salary, doing fewer than the recommended quota but being certain of the accuracy of her work. Most other workers commented that they were able to meet or better the projected quota giving them a pay rate of $4.30 an hour or better for the time they put in.
In spite of occasional tension, most local Enumerators agreed with Hilda Matero that the job had been a "good experience." "I remember only one man who adamantly refused to answer my questions," Zapata noted. "At first I told him all his answers were kept secret; that didn't change his mind. I explained how his answers would benefit the community by bringing in needed government funding, but he replied that the government was far too snoopy and far too big for his liking. Finally I said, 'Look, I'm only paid if you fill out the form and I need the money.' He smiled and said, 'Well, why didn't you say so,' then answered the questions."
Another Enumerator recalled that she once knocked on a door to be greeted by a man wearing only a towel, who grinned and invited her to "come in and relax." She conducted a rapid interview from the doorway and quickly departed.
Not all Census encounters had happy results. Hilda Matero rememvered a man who absolutely refused to fill out a form. "After I explained what I was doing he just said, 'Lady, I don't have to answer your questions,' and slammed the door. Another time a woman was mad at me and wanted to know why I had taken so long to get to her." Some days you just can't win.